Climate Change Helplessness

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I’ve noticed lately that conversations with my friends often turn into musings about the state of our planet and the effects of climate change. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s a topic we are all concerned about. But in some of my most recent conversations, I’ve discovered something that did surprise me. Several of my intelligent, educated, socially active, non-climate-change-denier friends are feeling helpless in facing the future realities of a warming Earth.

Here are a couple of examples….

There’s no hope. I don’t see a way out of it. In a short time this planet Earth is going to be uninhabitable, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. (university scientist)

I’ve stopped reading the newspapers. I used to love my Sunday mornings reading the New York Times, but now, I open it up and read a little, and put it down. It’s too much. (author)

I’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s all too overwhelming. (retired scientist)

When I went online and checked out some of the blogs that are coming out on the subject of global warming, I found there is the tendency among some of those writers to express similar feelings.

For example……

For the first time in my life, I’m unsettled and scared for the future. I feel helpless in the face of this overwhelming issue. (blogger: The Bigger Picture Blog)

When I allow myself to think about climate change and its glaring realities, the emotional reaction created makes me feel like crawling into bed and curling into a ball (blogger: Existential Dread of Climate Change)

When people feel helpless, when they perceive that, no matter how hard they try nothing they can do will alter their bad situation, they tend to give up, accept their fate and fall into a state of inaction. Learned helplessness, as this process is called in Psychology, is a game stopper when it comes to solving problems. It can lead to depression and anxiety and a lowered sense of self.

The naming of this psychological process dates back to a series of seminal research projects in Psychology during the 1960s, when, sadly, shocking animals was considered all right in the name of science. From these investigations, the researchers concluded that an individual can learn to become helpless after unsuccessful attempts at confronting a specific negative situation. For example, a child who cannot learn to solve math problems no matter how many tutors and teachers try to help him, after failing over and over to gain control of the situation, will give up trying. Children like these are vulnerable to carrying their negative emotional reactions to their helplessness to many other aspects of their lives. Learned helplessness can become a personality trait.

But that’s not how climate change helplessness works. Instead, in helplessness over global warming, people like my friends know that personal conservation practices like recycling and cutting back on energy use are correct, but believe their efforts are ineffective simply because of the enormity of the problem. After all, in contrast to classic learned helplessness where inaction affects the individual, in climate change the impact of inaction can have far-reaching effects for millions and possibly billions of people. The person who is aware of this then becomes morally entangled in the problem of climate change. There’s the rest of the world to think of.

So, in this complicated situation of feeling ineffectual in the face of the enormous moral responsibility, people suffering from climate change helplessness might protect themselves from becoming depressed and lethargic.

Like my friends the author and the retired scientist, they avoid thinking about it. Like the university scientist who concludes that there’s nothing that can be done to stop the progress. Like the bloggers who recognize that they want to curl up in bed or who feel unsettled and scared and helpless. They all sense that climate change is out of their control. But that doesn’t mean they will stop trying.

When My Brain Says Right, I Go Left

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I discovered something about myself recently that I never realized. Although I have a good sense of direction, there’s seems to be a little quirk in my internal compass. It appears that my left-right orientation has somehow become skewed by 180 degrees. That means, when my brain tells me to turn right, I should turn left if I want to get where I mean to go.

This may seem like a small thing, but, when I think about it, this tiny glitch actually has caused me many problems over the years. Like when I was in tenth grade in a new town.  I remember I left school for home and walked five miles in the wrong direction before I discovered my mistake. Like as an adult, when I was an event coordinator picking up the guest speaker at the airport and leading him in the opposite direction from the baggage claim. Very embarrassing.

We are born with an innate sense of direction that allows us to navigate through unfamiliar places without trepidation, that orients us and centers us and, like the birds and whales, and any number of migrating animals, homes us in on our place of safety and comfort. And this happens through a mechanism called magnetoreception, an ability of organisms – human and non-human – to pick up on the Earth’s magnetic field in order to sense direction, altitude and location.

In recent years, researchers have demonstrated that humans do have the power of magnetoreception. In one experiment the subjects’ brainwaves were measured on EEGs. The subjects were were tested inside a Faraday cage, a metal box that virtually eliminated the possibility of radio waves or other noise to interfere with the magnetic field that was applied, a field designed to imitate the magnetism of the Earth.

In addition to confirming the magnetoreceptive character of the human internal compass, researchers have also identified the area of the brain associated with the sense of direction. Through MRI scanning of the subjects in the experiment during a test of navigation, the part of the brain, the entorhinal region, was consistently activated during the test. The stronger the signal in that region, the better the subjects were able to navigate through the test.

As far as the problem with my personal internal compass, I don’t know how that all happened. I do find it quite interesting, though, and possibly somewhere way back, around age 6 or 7, when I was becoming comfortable with the idea of left and right, something happened that tricked my brain into interpreting left-right direction in this odd way. Who knows?

I guess navigation problems can happen to any creature. Think of whales and dolphins. Even they go astray from time to time, beaching themselves, leaving themselves stranded on shore. Does that happen because of some malfunction of their internal compass? Who knows?

Almost Everyone Has a Coyote Story

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Note: The title of this post is a phrase used on page 13 of Dan Flores’ book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.

Storytelling. Our way of learning who we are, of making sense of experience. These days, with coyotes sauntering in from the wild and taking up residence in our towns and cities, it is becoming more and more common to hear stories of chance meetings with them. And, these stories are not simple chit-chat. They are important to us. They reflect our feelings and paint pictures of our surroundings and life styles.

Two examples: Stories of encounters with coyotes; one in a rural setting and one in a city park:

A couple of coyotes got in and killed all my chickens at the ranch one year. I shot quite a few and they stayed away, but we could hear them most nights by the ditch howling to each other. Never saw another one up close again. But when my friend’s little Yorkie lap dog went outside the yard gate one day – only wandered a few feet – we never saw her again!   Weeks later I found her skeleton when I was tractoring the grove….plus, there were coyote tracks. I shoot them when I see them….but I haven’t seen any for quite a while. The coyotes are quite intelligent, so I’m not surprised!

My husband [we’ll call him Bill] jogs every day in the park. One morning a coyote appeared on the grass alongside the running path. Bill said that his first thought was, uh-oh, now I’m in trouble, and he started planning how he was going to run away or run into one of the apartment buildings across the boulevard from the park. Pretty soon, however, to his surprise and amazement, the coyote began to jog along on the grass, keeping pace with him. This kept up for about ten minutes, when the coyote veered off into a different direction and was gone. Bill looks for him most mornings now, but he hasn’t come back.

Telling stories involving coyotes is not a new phenomenon. The coyote was at the center of storytelling for thousands of years among the Indigenous people of our country. The Indians observed the coyote and recognized its intelligence, became familiar with its ‘personality traits’ and its behavior.

They saw the coyote as mischievous and cunning, a trickster who enjoyed causing trouble, but whose ridiculous plots and schemes often backfired, causing coyote great grief. On the other hand, coyote was also capable of wisdom and strength of character and tremendous adaptability in the face of ever-changing circumstances.

The Indigenous people in what would become America recognized these as human traits, things they saw in themselves, present in no other animal. In this unique connection to coyote, the Indians elevated the animal to sacred status, in some cases even attributing the creation of the world to him.

In the various tribes’ legends and myths, coyote is challenged by human-like dilemmas involving such things as food, power, money, sex, sharing and getting along with others. These tales presented opportunities for tribal members to observe the negative outcomes of selfish behaviors and to learn about the value of cooperation. Observing coyote’s perseverance in the face of great difficulty helped strengthen the resolve of the people to thrive and survive.

You might ask if there is a connection between what we now know about the Indigenous people’s knowledge of the natural history of the coyote and a modern-day rancher trying to protect her animals against the onslaught of coyotes and an urban runner who for a moment loped side by side with a coyote.

I believe Dan Flores stated it quite well when he wrote (p. 19),

Suffice it to say here that as we humans head off into an uncertain and probably dangerous future of our own making, it might be wise to keep an eye on [the coyotes]. I, for one, am going to be very interested in how coyotes cope with the twenty-first century and what insights we might draw about our own circumstances from a coyote history that so often seems to mirror ours.


SHE caught a mouse and began to play with it. HE, of course, noticed and approached.

Aware that HIS eyes were on HER mouse, she distanced herself fast.

Then she teased him and taunted him, provokingly, and continued to play with her mouse by tossing it and catching it, and dropping it sometimes: “ha ha, this is MINE and you can’t have it!!”  But he watched her carefully, and . . .

the minute that little mouse was tossed a little too far, HE grabbed it and ran with it. She watched him tear off with it. Now it was HIS.

He distanced himself far enough not to be reached, and then played with what was now HIS prize. He kept looking over at her thinking she might try to grab it back. But she was sly and pretended not to care –she pretended to be otherwise occupied.

Then, when she felt HE believed that it didn’t matter to HER, and when he was occupied with “his” mouse and no longer watching her, she snuck over and,

now it was payback time: when that little mouse was tossed too far, SHE grabbed it and took off.

This time there was no more tossing the mouse around. Why take the chance of its being grabbed again? She chewed it up and down the hatch it went. After all, it had been HER mouse before HE stole it from her! And then she grabbed HIS snout in hers to show who was boss: she who laughs last . . .

Teasing each other is something coyotes do a lot of. It’s a form of interaction, and most of it is done in good-will.

“Wolf” in My Garden

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

It’s ironic. After almost a hundred years and millions of dollars of government and private investment that attempted to shoot and poison the coyote out of existence, that pesky varmint has not only continued to flourish in his original range in the American Southwest, has not only taken up residence in every state of the union – save Hawaii – but now, the coyote has pushed into our cities, where he has become a regular urban dweller, enjoying life even in the most heavily populated cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It seems that the government strategists who carried out their poorly planned program of elimination failed to take into consideration the natural history of the coyote. They possibly did not realize that, the more they persecuted the coyote, the farther he would range.  They might have not known of coyote’s ability to make up for decreases in his number by increasing the number of pups that are born.

They did not factor in the coyote’s immense capacity for adapting to his  environment, including negotiating the hectic, crowded existence of urban life.








So here we are, city folks faced with sharing our space with canis latrans, a reality for which we may not be prepared.

To begin with, people tend to react negatively in general towards coyotes, more so than towards other wildlife, like deer or bears.

Dan Flores, in an interview about his book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, said that he believed that Mark Twain’s book Roughing It set the tone for people’s negative feelings about the coyote. “Mark Twain comes along,” said Flores, “and in a three-to-four-page comic rant about the animal, gives us a way to think of it as a cowardly, despicable little wretch that lives off carrion.

Here is part of what Twain wrote:

The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede.

Mark Twain was wrong, way off the charts. Coyotes are intelligent survivalists.  They live in family units. The male and female, who mate for life, are both involved in raising the pups. Coyotes are social and playful, and exhibit great curiosity.



Some people are frightened of coyotes, simply because they are wild, and they don’t know how to relate to wildlife.

Some people are frightened of coyotes because of personal experience. A dog or cat attacked. Killed. A personal encounter with a coyote on a trail. City agencies tend to be aware of the problems and can provide information. Also, websites like provide information and suggestions for how to live comfortably with coyotes.

Some people are frightened by the coyote’s howls and barks and yips. These are an essential aspect in the survival of the pack. Becoming familiar with the different sounds and understanding the purpose for the communication can not only alleviate the fear, but can also contribute to one’s enjoyment.

In one instance, coyotes will call back and forth, sort of like checking on who’s out there.  This is not simply social.  If their calls are not answered by the pack, this can trigger what is called an autogenic response, meaning they will begin producing larger litters.

Here is an example of a back and forth call:

Another type of call is a family howl, a way of gathering everyone together.  Here is an example of a family howl and an ultimate coming together:

So, what is the payback for us to accept this reality and to adapt to the presence of coyotes in our midst?  Why does it matter?  As Jaymi Heimbuch, in his article Navigating Existence With Urban Coyotes said,

As this top-level predator pushes farther into urban settings, resisting our best efforts at eradication, we are required to pay attention to how we react to our fears about and disconnection with wild animals. If there is a single animal on this planet who will test our own mettle as a species, who pushes us to question our ability to understand instead of judge, to study instead of kill, to coexist instead of dominate, to become more thoughtful and less fearful, it is the coyote.